(Note: This turned out to be a lengthy topic. Since I ramble endlessly even for small topics, I will deliver this in a couple of installments, and this is the first. Also, all audio samples are MIDI (i.e. computer) generated – so may sound “lifeless”, and may have glitches and imperfections. Please accomodate.)

Please take a listen to these samples:

Sample 1:

Sample 2:

(If you have trouble listening to the streaming audio, please click on these links to download the samples: Sample 1, Sample 2)

Now, consider the following:

  • Both are based on the same western music scale, the major scale, which has the same notes (swarasthanams) as the carnatic raga Sankarabharanam. Were you able to perceive this? Please listen again if needed.
  • The two samples uses all the notes of the major scale. Are you able to spot any resemblance (even if you have stretch things a lot and it is still faint) between the samples and Sankarabharanam?
  • If so, among the two, which one is kind of, sort of,”relatively closer” to Sankarabharanam? If you think it is sample 2, that is a good guess.

So what is the point of this exercise?

First, people with any exposure to carnatic music will hopefully conclude that neither sample can be considered to be even in the same planet as Sankarabharanam! This is perhaps obvious as both samples are in a western style, played with a distinctively western instrument – the piano. However, would you agree that the first sample is further removed from Sankarabharanam than the second – like it is not even in the same solar system as that raga?

If you don’t, consider this: the first one is a (slightly modified) version of the famous children’s rhyme Frère Jacques, while the second follows (approximately) the tune/melody of the first stanza of the varnam in Sankarabharanam. So the second sample is actually based on the tune of a carnatic composition in Sankarabharanam, and hence it better have a closer resemblance to it compared to the first! But it is still does seem “so different”, “so far” from anything that is Sankarabharanam and for that matter, anything Indian classical – right?

So why is a raga so different from anything in western music? Why does a tune in the raga Sankarabharanam sound so different from a tune in the western music major scale even though both the raga and the scale have pretty much the same notes/tones i.e. swarasthanams? That is the point of this exercise.

I will try to demonstrate some of the reasons behind this. Of course, this is not meant to be a comprehensive, exhaustive analysis and so I won’t cover all possible differences. And again, I am not an expert – neither in carnatic nor in western. Please let me what you think by posting a comment.

Let’s begin …
There are several differences between how Sankabharanam uses its constituent swaras vs. how a western music piece uses the notes in the major scale. Some are probably obvious, but some critical ones are actually not until you look closer.

Western Music: Key Shifts, Scale Shifts, Accidentals and Skipped Notes
It should first be noted that most western music pieces involve key shifts (shifts in sruthi), and/or scale shifts (like shifts in raga). Even among western music pieces that are in one key and one scale, I think it is not uncommon for some notes in the scale to be omitted, or “accidentals” (notes outside the scale i.e. anya swaras in carnatic lingo) to be present. All of this adds color to the western music piece. However for Sankarabharanam, none of this can be true – all are forbidden.

These differences do make it difficult for us to correlate a western music piece to any carnatic raga. This is a very significant difference between carnatic raga based pieces and western pieces. In fact, this probably means that comparing the western music major scale to Sankarabharanam raga is not that much meaningful.

However, let us limit ourselves to only those western music pieces that stick to one scale – the major scale, do not use accidentals, and use “pretty much” all the notes of the scale. There are such pieces – Frère Jacques being a simplistic example (although it actually does not use the seventh i.e. ni, and hence sample #1 above is a “modified” version above where I included it at the tail-end). In such pieces, where all notes in the scale and only those notes are used, this difference is negated, thus allowing us to do a better compare/contrast exercise against Sankarabharanam.

It’s the gamakas – stupid!
Another immediate and very obvious difference between Sankarabharanam and a western music piece in the major scale is that while in the western piece notes are held flat almost all the time, they are not commonly done so in carnatic. In carnatic music, it is way more common to modulate a note (i.e. render it with gamaka) than not. In short – it’s the gamakas stupid!

Let us take the major scale based on say D and take a simple, contrived phrase were one simply walks up the octave starting from the tonic (i.e. D or Sa) and then back down. This is how it would typically sound in western:

(Download by clicking here)

In Sankarabharanam, there are various ways of doing this, but we can safely say one must not do it as above i.e. with all notes held flat. Instead, one could do it as follows:

(Download by clicking here)

It should be obvious why I used guitar as the instrument above, and why piano would not worked. Also, as mentioned at the beginning, the pitch modulations are generated using MIDI i.e computer generated, and the results are not that stellar. Sorry.

Now, the difference should hopefully be obvious. In the second sample, while walking up the scale, some notes (2nd/ri, 4th/ma, 6th/da) are prominently modulated and not rendered flat. Similarly, while walking down also some notes are subtly modulated – differently from the modulations going up.

(Note: There is also the difference that most western instruments use equi-tempered tuning while carnatic uses natural tuning. I will just note that here but move on to other differences)

I should again emphasize that this is just one way of rendering the above phrase in Sankarabharanam. Each note can be modulated differently depending on the phrase, and sometimes differently depending on musician preference for the same phrase. It can be rendered flat too depending on the context. But no matter what, the fully flat version of sample 1, which would be quite acceptable in western music, would be completely unacceptable for Sankarabharanam.

Swaras vs. Notes: This may sound a bit technical and you can skip this para if it is hard to follow. In general, a swara in carnatic music does not represent always a fixed pitch/interval. Swaras are not notes in practice. One way to look at them is each swara can be considered as a “set of movements” that fall within a certain pitch range in the octave. Depending on the swara and the raga, this set may or may not include the “flat version”, which would be around a specific interval or swarasthanam that is roughly equivalent to that of the corresponding western note. The non-flat movements typically spans on either side up to the neighboring swara in the raga. A given swara in a raga (and in specific contexts) may have only the flat movement – at that swarasthanam. However, in another context it may be modulated.

In any case, the modulations i.e. gamakas, make a huge difference to the melody. They are easily the most characteristic difference between a melody that is raga based, vs. a melody that is not raga based. They are a big reason why sample #2 above did not really give out the feel of Sankarabharanam even though it sort of followed a tune of a song in Sankarabharanam. There were no gamakas in sample #2. So how would sample #2 really sound in carnatic style if we introduce gamakas? Take a listen:

(Download by clicking here)

Again, this was completely generated with MIDI, and the limitations of my effort are sort of more exposed by more complex modulations. Also I should note that here I have “struck” every swara – that is really not the way this song would be sung/played. There are words of the songs behind the swaras, and one really should be striking at most only those notes that coincide with syllables. Note also that here, every “note” in sample #2 is interpreted as a “swara” in that some involves a modulation/movement. If we were to notate this in western style (if possible) such that we account for the pitch modulations of the swaras, then we would say that the tune of this is quite different from that of sample #2. No wonder it sounds so different from sample #2! But then again just points to why/how Sankarabharanam is different from the major scale, and more generally why a raga is different from a scale.

Update: Ok, the popular consensus among readers is that the above sample sucked as bad as the original sample #2 in representing Sankarabharanam. They were saying without saying “Come on Arun, What kind of a cr$p was that?” (I understand but still – sob, sob! I sweated for you guys and this is what I get? 😉 ). So here is a professional version of that stanza of the song sung by the late (and great) Shri. K.V. Narayanaswamy:
(Download by clicking here)
Of course in this version, we can hear the actual words of the song, and so you may not find an automatic, ready made correlation to sample #1. An instrumental version would have been better – but I could not find one. Also, note that this version has more differences beyond just rendering swaras with gamakas – he has added extra swaras in the form of flourishes. This is of course typical, and for any song there are always such variations. Also, please note that his pitch (i.e. tonic/sa) is lower than that of sample #2 – it is about 2 semitones lower.

In any case, this is how the song that sample #2’s tune was (very crudely) based upon should sound like. This is how Sankarabharanam typically sounds like.

Is that it?
The above are perhaps very obvious differences. They do help making ragas sound very different from their western music counterparts. However, there are other not so obvious, but nevertheless key differences that further underline and embolden the dividing line between Sankarabharanam (ot any raga for that matter) and its western music counterpart. I talk about these in Part 2.